Terry and Rita have been married for 48 years this November. you have been supporting Terry following an accident with his hand. He put a nail through the artery while doing some minor repairs. Terry has just enjoyed his 81st birthday and is his wife’s primary carer. Rita is 72 and has become more reliant on Terry’s assistance following an increase of Mulitple Scoloris (MS) symptoms. Terry has been undertaking all the daily living tasks for his wife. had it not been for the hospital social worker becoming concerned for his welfare, they would still be on their own. the hospital had noted that Rita was insistent on Terry needing to be home and not taking the night at the hospital to recover following plastic surgery to repair the wound in his hand. terry was not in a position to look after himself. Rita expected him to care for her. Rita expressed frustration that
Terry had done this to himself because he didn’t want to take her to see family members. terry was just trying to fix a window that would not close.
What is coercive control and what does this mean in our work as support workers?
Coercive control is now being recognized within our court systems as an insidious abusive pattern of behaviours.
The behaviour has a cycle that includes love bombing, a pattern of devaluing a person, this then leads to isolation and persecution. The goal of the behaviour is to make the recipient fall for them and create an emotional need. The love bombing creates a dopamine “hit” that the recipient becomes to assume it is “love”. The perpetrator feigns interest in things by mirroring their target. This includes likes and interests and dislikes.
What is our duty of care?
If we do not see shared values such as respect, humility and shared commitment -in finances and all areas of life, at what point is it a problem we need to assist with.
Often people on the receiving end of this behaviour do not see what is happening. They “feel” (remember the dopamine hit) the overwhelming sense of love and attachment. When the perpetrator wants to demonstrate this there is usually an audience to reaffirm how great they are. As support workers we can be brought into their plans, we become the audience. By being aware of this we can understand the difference between healthy love and attachment and something more sinister. Our vulnerable population needs to know that we are a safe person, and they can trust us. We don’t need to know all the answers – we just need to know where to look and how to access the external supports available.
Following the love bombing what happens next is lack of attachment and connection. The respondent doesn’t understand why the perpetrator is now acting distant and emotionally unavailable. When discussing different situations there may be gaslighting regarding recollection of different memories, minimizing experience and feelings.
What do we do if we see this happening?
We are privileged that we work in the space we do. We are welcomed into people’s homes and lives in such a way that many do not witness. The ideal is that all our families are inclusive, supportive, and empowering for all, however, the reality is this is not so. Many people live with fear inside the home. Home is not the safe place it should be. When we as support workers enter a home and offer services, we are never quite sure what we may bear witness to.
After working with Terry for 3 weeks, you arrive to find him upset. Terry describes how Rita is angry that he is not able to do what she wants. Gently you coax out of Terry that Rita wants to add to the reverse mortgage on the house. Terry was an accountant all his life. Since his retirement he has been managing the household finances from his pension and Rita uses her pension for her online shopping expenses. Over the years Terry has attempted to help Rita understand their financial situation. Terry feels the burden of this and although he would like to meet his wife’s wishes, the bank has told him there is no equity in the home to access.
Terry discusses different situations he has experienced, including where Rita will trivialize the financial concerns. Rita minimizes Terry’s feelings regarding money, accuses him of overreacting because he was an accountant and all he worries about is money.
Countering. When discussing different aspects of life Rita often will question Terry’s recollection, make up new details, or deny that something happened. In all discussions Rita holds Terry accountable for aspects of their lives. Rita feels that her spending online is ok as she does it with her money and Terry has his.
Withholding. They brush off your attempts to have a discussion or accuse you of trying to confuse them.
Diversion. Terry has attempted many times to discuss their finances and have Rita share the responsibility. Rita holds firm that this is how they have done it for 48 years and she is not going to change now. Rita is old-fashioned and believes in what is mine is mine and what is Terry’s is ours. When Terry brings up a concern about Rita’s behaviour, she will change the subject or turn it back on Terry by suggesting he is making it up.
Forgetting or denying. When Terry does attempt to mention how the online shopping continues and they don’t have the money to support this, Rita claims she can’t remember or says it never happened at all.
Discrediting. Rita and Terry seem to have very different recollections of events. You notice that this is an everyday occurrence and while you are working with Terry you become concerned by the behaviours. The home is full to the brim of Rita’s online shopping purchases and each new delivery causes more anxiety for Terry. Rita tries to tell people that Terry can’t remember things correctly, gets confused easily, or makes things up. From your observations Terry’s memory is as sharp as a tack. Terry completes word puzzles and sudoku every day. Terry can tell a clear, linear story and enjoys the company of others, although he has stopped attending Rotary and can not seem to find the time to go to bowls that were his retirement dream.